Monday, October 5, 2015

REVIEW: 'The Leftovers' - Jarden, Texas Saw No One Depart But That Day Still Effects Its Citizens in 'Axis Mundi'

HBO's The Leftovers - Episode 2.01 "Axis Mundi"

Jarden, Texas was renamed "Miracle" after it was discovered that no one had departed. The town has since become a magnet for tourists and people who are convinced it can keep them safe. The Murphys are a local family trying to protect the town from frauds and charlatans. Kevin, Nora and Jill show up in Miracle to start over. The Murphy family experiences a mysterious event that will change their lives forever.

The Leftovers has always been unrelenting when it comes to the emotional devastation of its characters. The show has never made it easy for the audience to engage with its story. That's part of what makes the show so divisive. It's not afraid to be bleak and emotionally draining. It's not afraid of living in those emotions of loss and hopelessness all the time either. That can make it a difficult show to get into. And yet, the people who do understand the show get hit with a swell of expertly executed emotions each week. It's phenomenal to behold and "Axis Mundi" shows just how strong a grasp the show has on its themes and emotions.

The opening sequence of this second season is absolutely beautiful, haunting, brilliant and chilling. It's one of the best elongated sequences of the year on any show. It takes place completely outside of the main characters of the show. In fact, it takes things back to a prehistoric time. A time and location are never given. The audience has to live inside this moment as a pregnant woman's life radically changes over the course of these few minutes. She awakens in the middle of the night to leave her cave in order to pee. An earthquake occurs that rips her entire clan away from her in a matter of seconds. It's not unlike the main premise of the show. Desperation and loss aren't uniquely attached to the situation established on the show. They've been happening since the dawn of time. This woman is forced to give birth by herself. It's a harrowing and horrifying experience but she does it. And yet, she is left by herself cut off from everything she has known about this world. That is paralyzing. This loss is traumatic. It takes her awhile to even find the energy to travel to wherever the smoke is coming from in the distance. Soon thereafter, she is bitten by a snake that was attacking her baby and dies on the journey. It fully appears as if the show is opening with one of its bleakest moments yet. A baby is wrapped in its dead mother's arms destined for the same fate. And then, another woman emerges to take the baby.

All of this is a fantastic sequence that shows the journey of tragedy and loss but with a glimmer of hope. That's what everyone wants when something horrifying like this happens to them. They want to have the courage and strength to persevere no matter what. Should they fall, they hope someone else will be there to pick up the pieces for them. This opening sequence is its own entire story. It's a way to get the audience back into the show's storytelling. But it's also a profound statement on the ideals, themes and emotions of the show. It is seemingly connected to the new mystery of the show this season. Jarden, Texas didn't lose anyone during the Sudden Departure. That makes it unique in a world that is still dealing with this tremendous loss three years later. The camera pulls out at the end of the opening sequence to transition to a similar body of water being present in Jarden. That lake is very important throughout this premiere. Is it the key to the Departure? Who knows. But the mystery, appeal and allure of it are very captivating.

The show also took quite a risk with this first episode back by centering it around a new family - the Murphys. They appear as the Jarden equivalents to the Garvey family. John works for the fire department. His wife, Erika, is a nurse. And they have two children, Michael and Evie. They are still united in this post-Departure world. But the loss the world felt that day has still impacted their lives. Jarden has radically changed as a town because of it. People are flocking there hoping it will provide them with answers as to what happened that day. This show lives in the ambiguity of never knowing what really happened. No explanation will ever come and the characters have to learn how to accept that. This premiere definitely peaks some intrigue over Jarden being a special town. But it's also filled with people willing to exploit the emotions of others for personal gain.

It's unclear just how important the various aspects of the Murphys' lives will be in the future. John and his firefighter pals also serve as an anti-magic and supernatural vigilante group. They don't think it's right for people to be exploiting this experience for monetary gain. No one is safe from their judgment - not even childhood friends. Something horrible may be coming for John in the future. In fact, that seems pretty apparent by the end of the episode. But he's still determined to take on life as seriously and normally as possible. Similarly, it's uncertain if Erika releasing a bird she hid in a box or Evie running in the woods with her friends naked will ever be more than atmospheric mood that keeps the narrative off balance. And yet, the show does such a phenomenal job at depicting those little details of what life has become in the aftermath of the Departure. This is a show that can have a man walk into a diner and slaughter a goat and have the staff and the patrons think of it as nothing completely out of the ordinary. That's such a magnificent attention to detail that it doesn't matter if the mysteries of the show ever become too overwhelming for the narrative.

Of course, regular characters from the first season do pop up in this premiere episode. Matt, Nora, Kevin and Jill are all attempting to start over in life with a move to Jarden. And yet, they are only seen through the Murphys' eyes. This episode is all about them. They experience these characters just like everyone else. Matt is going to be the new pastor at their church for a little while and Kevin, Nora, Jill and Lily have moved in next door. The Murphys are friendly people. But the show always makes sure to keep things from feeling too comfortable. There is an off-kilter quality to them. John is relatable in his pursuit to find the cricket inside his house. But he also has this darkness that led to him spending time in prison and setting the house of a close friend on fire. It's that quality that brilliantly overwhelms this episode.

It's all leading up to the strange and mysterious disappearance of Evie. She was a character presented as a normal teenage girl. She wanted to hang out with her friends but she never forgot the importance of family in her life. She loves giving her dad the perfect birthday gift but makes sure he doesn't embarrass her in front of her friends by opening it right away. Another earthquake signals the fact that she and her friends never came home from their night out together. Everyone is worried about and not sure where to look. Michael guesses that they may have gone back out to the lake. But that only brings with it a whole new sense of isolation and loss. The water has mysteriously vanished and the girls are no where to be seen. This doesn't make any immediate sense. But the show absolutely nails that final reveal because of how mystical and uncertain it is. It definitely clarifies that one can never be too comfortable in this universe.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Axis Mundi" was written by Damon Lindelof & Jacqueline Hoyt and directed by Mimi Leder.
  • Someone left an apple pie at the Murphys' doorstep likely because it's John's birthday but they didn't leave a note. It's amusing watching as John tries to get rid of the pie in the fear that his friend's vision of him may actually be right.
  • It's interesting that Janel Moloney has been upped to series regular for the season. It could just be a contractual thing. She's too big of a star to not be billed that way. Or it could hint that Mary will soon experience some type of miracle now that she's living in Jarden with Matt.
  • It was fantastic to get some more information regarding the fact that the entire cast of Perfect Strangers disappeared in the Departure. Apparently, Mark Linn-Baker faked his departure and left for a life elsewhere. Either that or he has returned from where he went.
  • Was there a little hint of an attraction between Jill and Michael?
  • Last season's opening title sequence didn't bother me as much as it did some other people. Yes, it was grandiose and overly stylized. But it did contain compelling imagery. The new title sequence is drastically different. And yet, it may be even more fitting for the themes of the show. It's fantastic and a major upgrade.